Higher education Green Paper: more private providers and ‘exit’ plans for universities

John Morgan looks at plans to make it quicker for private colleges to access public funding and become universities

November 5, 2015
Revolving doors

The Green Paper is divided into four parts – and one of them is about “opening the sector to new providers”.

This market chapter also contains a section on “provider exit and student protection” – making it clear that, except in “limited circumstances”, the government is content for universities, other providers or courses to “exit”. Indeed, Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, has previously argued that catering for provider exit is necessary to ensure a functioning market in higher education.

In terms of “market entry”, the Green Paper says there will be “quicker access to student funding” for new providers, via the public Student Loans Company, and “no cap on student numbers”. 

Despite past damning criticism from the Public Accounts Committee of its failure to control public funding for students at private colleges in the last Parliament, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is determined to press ahead with its long-standing agenda to create more competition, and more of a market, by bringing in private providers.

The Green Paper also proposes that private providers should have the option to charge fees of £9,000 a year payable via the Student Loans Company (they are presently capped at £6,000 on fees paid via the SLC).

The aspects likely to most alarm existing universities – both Hefce-funded and private – are the proposals to scrap the requirement for institutions to have a certain number of students before they can become universities, and to make it quicker and simpler to get degree-awarding powers.

The concern from universities will be that making it easier to gain degree-awarding powers and university title weakens a vital element of UK higher education’s standing overseas – the proof that to award degrees and become a university in this country, you have to go through a rigorous process of showing you’re good enough.

The Green Paper sets out the status quo on gaining university title, under which, after gaining degree-awarding powers, “an applicant should have 1,000 full time equivalent higher education students of which at least 750 are studying for a degree and 55 per cent of the organisation’s overall student body is studying higher education”.

It adds: “We want to introduce access to university title for a wider range of providers and take the view that universities should not be so limited by the size or location of the student body. For this reason we propose reducing the number of students or potentially even removing the student numbers criterion for university title.”

So an institution with 50, or even 10, students could become a university?

On further “streamlining” the entry of private providers, the Green Paper says: “One possibility would be to remove the role of the Privy Council in making decisions about DAPs, university title and university college title.”

New institutions have concerns about the length of time the Privy Council takes to respond to applications. But existing universities will also have concerns about removing the Privy Council’s involvement, which some will argue could damage the perceived gold standard of UK higher education overseas.

For gaining degree-awarding powers, the Green Paper proposes that the current track record requirement – institutions must be teaching degrees validated by a university for four years to demonstrate their quality before they can apply for their own degree powers – be reduced to three.

“We will also consider introducing more flexibility on what constitutes track record, for example taking account of models other than the traditional validation route; overseas track record; the track record of individuals within the organisation (for example from their prior experience), as well as the institution’s own track record,” the Green Paper adds.

I wonder if the point about “the track record of individuals” is a reference to the philosopher A. C. Grayling? His New College of the Humanities has been frustrated by having to seek a validation agreement to establish a track record, in its case with Southampton Solent University.

Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, is said to frequently refer to Grayling and to have a desire to see NCH establish itself.

The Green Paper also revives plans from the 2011 White Paper to allow “non-teaching bodies” to gain degree-awarding powers. Pearson is not mentioned in this context, but I imagine the firm would be keen to see this change.

And there’s a proposal that the new Office for Students could be a degree validator for new providers.

On “exit”, there’s only a short, three-page section. But it makes it clear that the government can envisage a university failing as long as it’s in an orderly way, by providing a regime for student protection. There “may be limited circumstances where it might make sense to support an institution on a temporary basis”, it says. In other words, the OfS won’t necessarily see it as its job to prop up an institution in big trouble.

john.morgan@tesglobal.com

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